A champion biathlete says being autistic is the reason she never gave up

Ashley Runnalls is a champion biathlete recently selected for Team Alberta, but getting this far hasn’t been easy for the 20-year-old.

Champion biathlete Ashley Runnalls says her autism diagnoses pushed her forward in life more than it’s ever held her back. At the young age of 20, she’s already earned over 20 medals and made Team Alberta. Produced by Courtney Ingram and Natalie Valleau.

Runnalls was diagnosed with autism when she was three. The mental condition has affected her motor and speech skills, which means she has difficulties with small tasks like opening doors.

Despite physical and mental setbacks, Runnalls says being autistic is the reason she’s so motivated.

“Most people at my age would have given up by now,” she says.

Runnalls has been competing in biathlon since she was fourteen, and just recently made Team Alberta. Photo by Courtney Ingram.

After watching her brother compete as a biathlete, Runnalls decided she wanted to try the sport.

Biathlon is a winter sport, combining cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. Contestants race through a cross-country trail with two to four shooting rounds where their target accuracy impacts their overall race time. Runnalls has earned over 20 medals so far but says she still struggles with shooting.

“I’m a really fast runner and a good skier but adding the shooting part to the race is very difficult,” she says. “Studies say that if you’re at that attentive level, your brain shuts off and it’s all muscle memory. That’s one thing I’ve been struggling with for years. I finally got it down but I’m not there quite yet.”

“Most people at my age would have given up by now,” Ashley Runnalls

Dean Svoboda, founder of Autism Aspergers Friendship Society of Calgary, a centre that Runnalls has attended previously, is trying to break the stigma around autism and prove it isn’t scary as some people think it is.

“There’s families out there with young diagnoses, your son or daughter is going to be like themselves, encourage them to be themselves,” Svoboda says. “[To] live life how they want to live it.”

Ashley Runnalls poses with Team Alberta following the Nationals competition March, 2017. Photo courtesy of Ashley Runnals.

Runnalls says she hopes to break stigma and prove that if you have a good family and continuous support, you can achieve anything.

“People could be like this, they could be doing sports and going to school and passing high school in three years,” she says.

This motivation has pushed Runnalls to write a book about her life called The Girl with Two Brains.

“It’s started off with the girl that couldn’t do anything, and ended with who I am today.”

cingram@cjournal.canvalleau@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Nina Grossman, ngrossman@cjournal.ca